Monday, January 28, 2013

Global Warming Leveling Off

I have been blogging about climate change for several years.  My general view of the issue, stated early on, is as follows:

1.       Global warming has been real over the last century. 
2.      Human activity may have been a significant factor in forcing that warming. 
3.      It is very difficult to tell what the causes of the warming are and how much of an impact human activity actually had. 
4.      It is not at all certain whether the effects of warming have been or will be, on balance, good or bad for human beings. 
5.      There is no reasonable chance that global treaties or nation-specific policies will have any impact on human carbon emissions. 

I think I am right on all five counts.  The global treaty initiatives have come a cropper.  Nations committed to reducing carbon emissions have, for the most part, failed to achieve that aim.  Actual reductions in carbon emissions have come from economic distress and from the application of new technologies such as fracking. 
Now comes a finding from The Research Council of Norway that pokes a hole in the climate change balloon.  
After Earth’s mean surface temperature climbed sharply through the 1990s, the increase has leveled off nearly completely at its 2000 level. Ocean warming also appears to have stabilized somewhat, despite the fact that CO2 emissions and other anthropogenic factors thought to contribute to global warming are still on the rise.
This, in scientific terms, is what counts as a negative finding.  Despite increased carbon emissions, warming has leveled off.  The Norwegian project used the same framework as the IPCC.  What would be the effect of doubling carbon emissions from pre-industrial levels? 
Uncertainties about the overall results of feedback mechanisms make it very difficult to predict just how much of the rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature is due to manmade emissions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the climate sensitivity to doubled atmospheric CO2 levels is probably between 2°C and 4.5°C, with the most probable being 3°C of warming.
In the Norwegian project, however, researchers have arrived at an estimate of 1.9°C as the most likely level of warming.
This confirms my points 3, 4, and 5.  We don’t really know how much human activity is contributing to climate change and we don’t have any good reason to suppose that the current trajectory of climate change will be bad.  If the Norwegians are right, we will at worst achieve a level of climate change that the IPCC thought we should aim at without any help from global treaties. 
Climate change should be taken seriously.  Science can tell us a lot but much of what it tells us is ambiguous.  Just right now, climate change looks to be something less than a crisis.  It certainly doesn’t justify hobbling our economies, which is something we weren’t going to do anyway. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

H. Allen Orr on Nagel

H. Allen Orr is a biologist and a frequent player at the New York Review of Books.  The latter makes for essential reading both because and in spite of the fact that it is dedicated to defending a leftist orthodoxy.  Orr has been called on before, if my memory is correct, to debunk evolutionary psychology, with which the leftist orthodoxy is uncomfortable. 
Orr takes on Thomas Nagel’s book which I have been commenting on here.  It is an odd bit of debunking as it certainly attacks Nagel on some key points but, I think, sort of agrees with his larger point. 
Orr puts Nagel’s thesis in these terms:
Nagel insists that the mind-body problem “is not just a local problem” but “invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history.” If what he calls “materialist naturalism” or just “materialism” can’t explain consciousness, then it can’t fully account for life since consciousness is a feature of life. And if it can’t explain life, then it can’t fully account for the chemical and physical universe since life is a feature of that universe. Subjective experience is not, to Nagel, some detail that materialist science can hand-wave away. It’s a deal breaker. Nagel believes that any future science that grapples seriously with the mind-body problem will be one that is radically reconceived.
That is the point that is essential in Nagel’s book and I think that Orr comes very close to conceding it. 
Nagel concedes that many philosophers do not share his skepticism about the plausibility of reducing mind to matter. And I can assure readers that most scientists don’t. I, however, share Nagel’s sense of mystery here. Brains and neurons obviously have everything to do with consciousness but how such mere objects can give rise to the eerily different phenomenon of subjective experience seems utterly incomprehensible.
Yes.  Is it possible that some really big leap in science is required before consciousness can be accounted for, as Nagel insists? 
Science has, since the seventeenth century, proved remarkably adept at incorporating initially alien ideas (like electromagnetic fields) into its thinking. Yet most people, apparently including Nagel, find the resulting science sufficiently materialist.  The unusual way in which physicists understand the weirdness of quantum mechanics might be especially instructive as a crude template for how the consciousness story could play out. Physicists describe quantum mechanics by writing equations. The fact that no one, including them, can quite intuit the meaning of these equations is often deemed beside the point. The solution is the equation. One can imagine a similar course for consciousness research: the solution is X, whether you can intuit X or not. Indeed the fact that you can’t intuit X might say more about you than it does about consciousness.
Orr doesn’t seem to recognize how big a leap was involved in quantum mechanics.  Prior to the emergence of that field of physics, most scientific theory was resolute deterministic.  Every particle was at one place at one time and the state of every closed system rigidly determined the state of the system at all points in time.  Quantum mechanics allows particles to be in more than one place and state at one time and for authentically undetermined events.  If probability is not merely a limitation on our powers of prediction and instead something metaphysically real in the way that gravity is real, then materialism has a metaphysically new meaning. 
It might be that consciousness is simply something we cannot understand because our perspective as conscious creatures blinds us to it, a possibility that Orr considers.  It may be however that the nature underlying consciousness is, like quantum indeterminacy, something radically new to science.  If so, then Nagel is on to something. 
The lesser point of Nagel’s argument is that materialist biology is empirically wanting, as it is simply inadequate to explain the rise of complex forms of life.  Nagel suggests that only some kind of natural teleology can meet that challenge.  As Orr puts Nagel’s view:
Natural teleology doesn’t depend on any agent’s intentions; it’s just the way the world is. There are teleological laws of nature that we don’t yet know about and they bias the unfolding of the universe in certain desirable directions, including the formation of complex organisms and consciousness. The existence of teleological laws means that certain physical outcomes “have a significantly higher probability than is entailed by the laws of physics alone—simply because they are on the path toward a certain outcome.”
Orr responds with some very interesting summaries of evolutionary biology, including the difference between DNA and RNA.  I have no reason to quarrel with this except to point out that it should be possible to show mathematically that the complexity of life is within the powers of these simple molecules to produce.  Maybe it is, but has anyone show that it is?
Unfortunately, Orr fails to make a fundamental distinction between teleology as a factor in biological explanations, which he sort of acknowledges as reasonable, and teleology as a factor in the appearance of life on earth.  It is the latter that Nagel argues for.  Nagel says that scientists who study the origin of life generally believe that mere chance was insufficient to account for the emergence of the original replicators from which all other life evolved.  Is he right?  If not chance, then what?  I have consideredNagel’s argument on “unintentional forcing” as an explanation for the emergence of life.  Orr is silent on this. 
Orr’s review is respectful but is clearly intended to blunt the force of Nagel’s argument.  I have to say that, having read it, Nagel looks to be more rather than less worthy of taking seriously. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Women in Combat

The Pentagon has announced that it is lifting the ban on women in combat roles.  The New York Times is elated. 
The Pentagon’s decision to end its ban on women in combat is a triumph for equality and common sense. By opening infantry, artillery and other battlefield jobs to all qualified service members regardless of sex, the military is showing that categorical discrimination has no place in a society that honors fairness and equal opportunity.
It is typical of the Times specifically and liberal opinion in general that it leads with the political angle and adjusts any strategic questions accordingly.  The Times views the military as one more goody to be distributed and is not much interested in the question of whether putting women in combat roles will actually make the armed forces weaker or stronger. 
As it happens, I delivered a paper this summer on this very topic.  I began with a general analysis of military virtue.  Here is a bit of my paper. 
Courage, understood both as steadfastness in defense in the face of great peril and a readiness to exploit opportunities by going on the offensive, is for good reason recognized as the key military virtue.  This implies, of course, that one can recognize when it is the right time to retreat, or make a stand, or attack; accordingly, prudence is a military virtue in generals and, to a lesser degree, in all military officers.  Prudence is not obviously a virtue of the soldier in the line, as the integrity of the army requires that the soldiers act as units in a larger whole rather than as individuals.  Thus moderation and justice, as Plato’s Socrates understood them, may be seen as key military virtues.  Moderation exists where authority is obeyed.  Justice exists when each part of the whole does its own specific work. 
That, it seems to me, is how to begin thinking about the question.  What capacities do we need in our persons at arms?  The above focuses on psychological virtues but there are also physical virtues to consider, reading virtue here in the larger Greek sense. 
In human populations, as in other species of apes and a wide range of other mammals, males are larger and stronger than females.  Males have an advantage in stamina and are more resistant to injury.  The explanation for this is uncontroversial among theorists who rely on Darwinian mechanics.  For human males as for chimpanzees, the frequency of successful mating is generally proportional to reproductive success.  The more females to which a male gains access, the more offspring he is likely to sire.  The reverse is not true for females.  As a result, males directly compete with one another for mates and the competition is often violent.  Certain elements of physique that enhance military virtue are thus selected for over very long periods of time. 
It seems clear that women on average will be less fit than men for the physical rigors of combat.  However, less fit doesn’t mean unfit.  Modern weapons do not, for the most part, depend on upper body strength as previous military technologies did.  Whether women in general are capable of the demands of combat service can only be determined by testing them. 
Unfortunately, testing requires honesty and here I see a problem.  Commentators on Fox News took the President at his word.  Let women compete in military training and let those who demonstrate fitness serve accordingly.  That strikes me as the obviously sensible approach.  It is not the approach we will take. 
The question of rights and equality will trump any concern for military effectiveness.  If too many women fail to meet reasonable standards for combat fitness, then the standards will be lowered.  This is what has always happened in the past and it will not change.  Women are going to be integrated into combat units in numbers that please the President and Congress, regardless of who demonstrates fitness for what. 
Plato’s Socrates was in favor of military training for women and so am I.  I think that any woman willing and able to serve in combat should be allowed to do so.  I think, however, that women should be held to the same standards as men.  I think there is very little chance that that will happen so long as we put rights talk above a concern for an effective military. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Dawkins v. Gould & Plato

While cleaning up my basement today, I found a book I didn’t remember that I had.  It’s Dawkins v. Gould: Survival of the Fittest, by Kim Sterelny.  I have been interested in the Dawkins-Gould debate for some time. 
Dawkins (along with philosopher Daniel Dennett) are “ultra-Darwinians”.  They think that the central question in biology is how organisms are so well adapted to their environments and they hold that the answer is always natural selection.  Moreover, Dawkins thinks that the primary unit on which natural selection acts is the genes or, more correctly, gene lineages.  Organisms are just military vehicles built to carry and maintain their genetic architects, largely by victories in battle with other lineages.  Finally, the larger level of evolution‑the emergence of distinct species‑is just the aggregate of events at the level of organisms and genes. 
Reading a portion of Sterelny’s book tonight, I think I finally have a grasp of Gould’s counter position.  Gould thinks that the basic question is why there are really a rather small number of basic organism forms and why there is so much stability in organic form over time.  The basic division of the animal kingdom is into phyla, of which there are about thirty.  Gould thought that they all appeared at about the same time and observes that there has been little change in the arrangement since.  While adaptation surely continues, the era of phyla innovation seems to be well over. 
Gould interprets this as pointing to species selection as one of the primary force in evolutionary history.  From time to time, usually or always as a result of some big change in the environment (think comet strike), a lot of the biological landscape is scraped clean and there are openings for new types of organism.  There are only so many basic possibilities in biological design space and only some are suited to the new environment.  These are the ones that appear.  In this account, it is the species that is the target of selection and limits on species design that account for the basic organic models.  Chance plays a very big role in this, as it is chance that steers the comet or whatever else roles the dice. 
By contrast, natural selection plays a minor role.  Individuals in a successful line will tend to be, well, successful.  Once the successful models have been established, there will be relatively little change until the next apocalypse. 
I discussed the difference between chance, unintentional biasing, and intentional biasing in a previous post with the regard to explaining the origin of life.  While unintentional biasing looks dubious as a solution to the origin problem, it strikes me that Gould took it very seriously as an explanation of the basic disparity of life, i.e. explaining why organisms fall into a number of basic patterns. 
Consider the beetle.  There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of distinct species of beetle.  All of them (by definition) follow the same pattern.  A second set of wings evolved into a retractable coat of armor protecting the functional wings.  In the organic form of the species from which all beetles descend, there was unintentional biasing towards the beetle form.  The proto-beetle, apparently having two sets of wings and whatnot was unintentionally biased toward a new and very successful area in design space. 
I confess that this strikes me as a quarrel that does not force me to take sides.  I suspect that Gould was right to insist on the importance of general forms and stability in evolution.  I have often thought that the chief thing that Darwin explained was not how species come to be but why so many of them remain so stable over time.  I like the emphasis on species selection because it looks to me like a modern version of Plato and I have the hots for Plato. 
At the same time, Gould’s successful species types are successful because the individual members are well adapted to their environments.  Even if cumulative instances of selection are less important in the explanation of general species forms than the ultra-Darwinians suppose, every species is just a bunch of critters and each critter has to make a living and leave a legacy.  The emphasis on natural selection and adaptation is still the fundamental explanation of how organisms are adapted to their environment and how a general species is kept in business.